When the White House asked if I’d be willing to sit on the National Council for the Arts, one of the things that briefly gave me pause was the length of my paper trail. The FBI investigated me prior to the announcement of my nomination, and they wanted to know whether I’d ever done, said, or written anything that might embarrass the president. What made this question funny–sort of–is that I’ve been a professional writer since 1977, during which time I’ve been more or less closely associated with four different newspapers and God only knows how many magazines. (Let’s not even think about the blog.) No doubt I wrote something that might embarrass the president. What’s more surprising is that I’ve written so few things that in retrospect embarrass me.
It’s not that I haven’t changed my mind about anything since 1977. I have, many times, and when I do I try to be as open and honest about it as possible. I was having lunch with one of my Wall Street Journal editors just the other day, and he mentioned that he’d especially liked this passage from last week’s drama column:
I got off on the wrong foot with August Wilson. I wasn’t living in New York when he was in his prime, and “Gem of the Ocean,” the first of his plays that I saw on Broadway, struck me as self-consciously poetic to the point of flatulence. It wasn’t until the Court Theatre’s revival of “Fences” in Chicago this past January that I finally understood what all the fuss was about….
My editor said he liked it when the critics who wrote for him didn’t pretend to omniscience. I feel the same way, and even more so when it comes to fits of outright stupidity. One of mine was a 1995 Daily News review of the Lincoln Center premiere of Mark Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato in which I called it “impressive in its seriousness, stunning in its inventiveness–and, ultimately, disappointing in its emotional flatness.” This was a willfully wrongheaded judgment that I have since publicly retracted, with parsley.
It thus occurs to me that I really ought to say something in this space regarding the only piece reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader about which I’ve had second thoughts–of a sort. In 2001 I published an essay in the Sunday New York Times called “The Myth of Classic TV” (they called it something else, but I restored my original title when I put it in the Teachout Reader). In it I wrote:
As it happens, only thirteen episodes of The Sopranos are aired each season, and the series is expected to have a fairly limited run. More typical is St. Elsewhere, which ran for 137 consecutive episodes, each of which grew organically out of its predecessors. Such long-running series can only be experienced serially, which for all practical purposes means during their original runs; once they cease to air each week in regular time slots, they cease to be readily available as total artistic experiences, and thus can no longer acquire new viewers, or be re-experienced by old ones. This is why there is no such thing as a “classic” TV series: we never see any series enough times to know whether its overall quality justifies the multiple viewings which are the hallmark of classic status. (Needless to say, I’m not talking about those fanatical cultists who have seen each episode of Star Trek a hundred times and can recite the dialogue from memory. To them, my heartfelt advice is: get a life.)
Some think The Sopranos will break this iron rule of ephemerality. I understand that a great many videocassettes of the first thirteen episodes have been sold, presumably to latecomers who weren’t subscribing to HBO in 1999 and wanted to find out what they’d missed. But if you aren’t already watching The Sopranos, you’re probably not going to start now, unless you’re prepared to sit through reruns of 26 additional episodes between now and next March, when the fourth season begins. Nor are even rabid fans likely to watch The Sopranos from beginning to end more than once. Who has the time?
Since I wrote those words, the DVD has replaced the videocassette, innumerable TV series of the past have been released either in their entirety or in large chunks, and the most popular of these box sets rank among the hottest items on the home-video market. Nevertheless, I persisted until very recently in thinking that the success of TV series on home video was a fad, and that such box sets would end up gathering dust on the shelves of countless collectors, not unlike the innumerable copies of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization that found their way into the homes of members of the Book-of-the-Month Club a generation ago.
I now know I was wrong, not least because other bloggers, among them Our Girl, have told me so. What I don’t understand is why I was wrong. More than most critics of my generation, I’ve been conscious of and sensitive to the effects of technology on culture. (That’s why this blog exists.) Along with “The Myth of Classic TV,” the Teachout Reader contains “Life After Records,” a lengthy essay in which I sum up several years’ worth of thinking on the subject of how the new media will affect the recording industry. So far as I know, I was the first mainstream music critic to predict the coming of downloadable music, and as any number of my artist friends will testify, I was among the first to tell them to launch Web sites, start blogs, check out ArtistShare and satellite radio, and look into iTunes and podcasting. Whatever the opposite of a Luddite is, that’s me.
So why did I fail to foresee the explosion of interest in TV series on video? I don’t have an easy answer to that one, but I suspect I made the biggest mistake a cultural critic can make, which is to confuse himself with the public at large.
I stopped watching series TV midway through the run of The Sopranos, in large part because I was spending so many of my nights on the town, first as an all-purpose critic-boulevardier for the Washington Post and later as the Journal‘s regular drama critic. On occasion I’d take a short-lived interest in a new show, but I was never willing to make the commitment of time necessary to keep up with any series on a week-to-week basis, and when full-season DVD collections came along, I was no more inclined to spend thirteen-hour chunks of my life working my way through them.
The only times I immerse myself in series TV are when I visit Our Girl in Chicago and spend a rainy Sunday immersing myself in her latest TV-related enthusiasm, whatever it may be. Over the years the two of us have gorged ourselves on day-long marathon viewings of Freaks and Geeks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, and House, all of which I took seriously and enjoyed hugely. Alas, I was never able to stick with any of them for more than a few weeks after returning to New York. I had too many other things to do.
I still think I’m “right” about series TV, but to be right, as Franz Kline said to Frank O’Hara, is “the most terrific personal state that nobody is interested in.” The fact is that lots of smart people feel otherwise. Just last week, for instance, Our Girl linked to a very smart posting by Peter Suderman in which he took issue with a recent essay Mark Steyn wrote for The Atlantic. Steyn claimed in his piece that I was right about classic TV:
Indeed, the more “classic” your show, the more ephemeral it is. Getting into Ovid or Gregorian chant is a piece of cake next to getting into thirtysomething fifteen years on. Conceivably, one might find oneself in a motel room unable to sleep at four in the morning and surfing the channels come across St. Elsewhere. But they made 137 episodes of multiple complex interrelated plotlines all looping back to Episode 1: if you’ve never seen it before and you stumble on Episode 43, who the hell are all these people and what are they on about?
To which Suderman replied:
Steyn is certainly correct to say that shows like Homicide don’t lend themselves to the trivialities of syndicated kitsch. The bland background hum required for good afternoon cable and late-night channel surfing isn’t really a good mix with the drawn-out ambiguities and complexities of these shows. And if cable reruns were all we had, then that would be that.
But television, especially of the HBO variety, is becoming more novel-like, and DVD box sets are allowing us to approach these shows in a way that preserves–even enhances–their novel-like aspects. Binge-watching these shows in commercial free, multi-episode gulps is a perfect way to experience the “multiple complex interrelated plotlines” that Steyn sees as a flaw in regular broadcast viewing. The rise of the DVD medium means that a show like Homicide, which, as with an excellent novel, provides both an accurate portrayal of a place in time and a gripping narrative populated by scads of well-crafted characters, is no longer consigned to the wastelands of syndication.
So…who’s right? In the very long run, I suspect I am. No matter how “novel-like” Homicide may seem to be, there’s simply too much of it to embrace in the all-absorbing way we embrace a novel.
To return once more to my original essay:
Hill Street Blues was the first TV drama I ever went out of my way to see, and were there world enough and time, I might even consider watching the first few dozen episodes again. But while I still remember how much I liked Hill Street Blues, I can’t recall much else about it–only a few isolated moments from two or three episodes–whereas I could easily rattle off fairly complete synopses of, say, Citizen Kane or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or whistle the exposition to the first movement of Mozart’s G Minor Symphony. To qualify as a classic, a work of art must first of all be good enough to make you want to get to know it at least that well. Will any TV series ever be good enough to fill that exalted bill?
I don’t think so–but for the moment, I’d say I’m outvoted.
ELSEWHERE: I wrote a piece about Freaks and Geeks for the Sunday New York Times in 2001. It’s not in the Teachout Reader, but you can read it by going here.
UPDATE: Peter Suderman replies–and very interestingly, too.